There has been an interesting discussion amongst the geologists on Twitter, that I’ve archived over on Geotweeps Discuss…, over the role of the lecture in undergraduate education. This was in response to an NPR story claiming that in physics at least, lectures are very bad at enabling students to conceptually grasp the material being presented. That sort of understanding requires a more interactive style of teaching, with demonstration, and small-group discussions.
I’ve read a few of these in the last few months, and in some ways I feel they set up a false dichotomy between ‘all lectures’ and ‘no lectures’, when the reality is usually ‘some lectures’. I certainly feel, as did most people who joined the discussion on Twitter, that lecturing should not be the be-all and end-all of the teaching experience, but it still has a place.
My experience of lectures back when I was an undergraduate was that some were good, some were bad. Some were very bad. But they were almost always a good starting point, in the sense that you came out with an idea of what the person teaching your course thought were the important concepts you needed to grasp, and usually a couple of useful example problems or case studies. Attaining true understanding might have only come after practicals, and reading, and talking it through with my classmates and teachers, but the lecture was where I learnt what I needed to understand.
Of course, I’m perhaps a little bit of an outlier: I’ve stayed in the academic system and have spent time at the front of the classroom as well, and I went to a University which had no compuction in telling us that perfect regurgitation of lecture notes would not impress the examiners – whilst also giving us plenty of non-lecture contact time with the faculty.
In a time when Universities are having to accommodate more students with less money, and staff are finding their schedules ever more loaded, perhaps we are heading to a place where the lecture is often the only real point of contact between teacher and the students. Combine this with the fact that students are coming to university ever more accustomed to ‘I’m going to tell you what’s in the exam’ than to ‘Here’s what you need to learn about. Go forth to the library!’, and perhaps we have a problem.
Anyway, I’d be interested to hear other peoples’ thoughts on this. If you went to university, did you love lectures, or hate them? Get all you needed out of them, or nothing at all? Have nothing but lectures, or a bit more balance?
Update: Thanks for all the great comments. There were also a few responses on Twitter that I thought were worth adding for posterity.